Communication without barriers

This month’s guest blog comes from Alistair McNaught, one of Jisc’s accessibility and inclusion Subject specialists. Jisc provide digital solutions for UK education and research. 

Research demonstrates that multimodality makes for better learning experiences. It is equally true that it makes for better communication and dissemination. How better to practice what you preach then to communicate your research findings in a multimodal way so that more people can access them in their preferred medium?

However, it is vital to remember that each mode of communication has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. To borrow a metaphor from GCSE physics, are we communicating in series or in parallel? Here’s a simple thought experiment.

You have five key findings to communicate: A, B, C, D and E.

Somebody communicating in series may have a document for A, followed by a podcast for B, then an elegant and graphically rich PowerPoint for C, a mind map for D and a video for E.

The problem with this approach is that in order to get to all the information you need to be able to access all modes. If you can’t hear podcasts or can’t see mindmaps you have no access to key parts of the information. But it’s not just about disabled people. Poor or uninformed accessibility practice results in negative consequences for everybody. The table below shows the cost of ignorance for a range of practices that are common, even amongst communication professionals who ought to know better. These have an adverse affect on every person with whom you are trying to communicate… and a worse effect on the 10% of your audience with disabilities.

Here are some typical barriers and their consequences..

  • Documents without heading styles – Difficult to get overview of content. Tedious to navigate. Hit and miss searching.
  • Images without effective caption or description – Difficult to identify key points or relevance.
  • PowerPoint presentations with no information in the Notes field – Cluttered, text heavy slides… or incomprehensible minimalism.
  • Podcasts with no transcript or key point summary – Difficult to skim content. Difficult to search content. Potential ambiguities (dates, spellings, acronyms).
  • Videos with no captions, transcript or key point summary – As above. Lack of captions narrows the contexts in which the video can be used (eg needs headphones or quiet private space).

Making your resources more accessible to everyone across all channels doesn’t need to take a lot of time or effort. With only a few simple actions a negative can be turned into a positive – and there’s plenty of free guidance available to help you make this leap.

Finally, consider workflows. Wherever possible think in parallel, not in series. Plan so you create once in a way that can easily repurpose to other formats. Consider these examples:

  • your accessible Word document (complete with heading styles) could be – in seconds –
    • imported into a mind mapping tool to provide a visual summary of the content; or
    • used as the transcript for a podcast or
    • provide a content summary of a video.
  • your accessible PowerPoint presentation, (with notes in the note field) not only clarifies the slides but also can be exported into a Word document as a handout.
  • if the visual and audio content in a video independently communicates the key ideas then it is probably accessible whether somebody is deaf, blind or neither.

If you have gone to the effort of conducting good research it’s worth communicating it effectively.